The evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism is exceedingly flimsy, says Milo Yiannopoulos In December the Venerable English College in Rome revealed that it had uncovered a mysterious parchment. According to the College, it suggests that Shakespeare spent “missing years” in Rome and that the Bard was a recusant Catholic for most of his adult life.
The evidence amounts to three signatures: those of “Arthurus Stratfordus Wigomniensis”, dated 1585, “Shfordus Cestriensis”, dated 1587, and “Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis”, dated 1589. Fr Andrew Headon, vice-rector of the College, thinks they should be decoded as: “[King] Arthur’s [compatriot] from Stratford [in the diocese] of Worcester”, “Sh[akespeare from Strat]ford [in the diocese] of Chester” and “William the Clerk from Stratford”.
These three signatures are not the first artefacts produced in support of the idea that Shakespeare was a Catholic. Irish Shakespeare scholar and editor Edmond Malone famously saw and described a “tract”, discovered in the 18th century in a house that once belonged to John Shakespeare, which purported to show John’s secret Catholicism.
Various pieces of circumstantial evidence have also been offered by Catholic scholars over the years. They include the alleged Catholicism of several of Shakespeare’s schoolteachers and of John Frith, the man who conducted Shakespeare’s wedding ceremony; the fact that Shakespeare was never registered as attending a Protestant service while in London (though it was the government’s practice to keep records of attendees); and the testimony of Archdeacon Richard Davies, a 17th-century Anglican minister who wrote that Shakespeare “died a Papyste”. And it is often pointed out that Shakespeare purchased the eastern gatehouse at Blackfriars, a secret meeting place for fugitive Catholics, in 1613.
In 2005 amateur scholar Clare Asquith published Shadowplay, in which she too claimed the Bard for Catholicism. But Asquith went even further than that, presenting Shakespeare’s body of work as a complex web of signifiers pointing to a strong set of Catholic beliefs and a profound unease about the prevailing Protestant orthodoxy. Her supporters included Fr Peter Milward SJ, who confidently asserts Shakespeare’s Catholicism in his own book Shakespeare the Papist. Fr Milward says Asquith was the first person to spot and decode the hidden messages in Shakespeare’s plays.
But none of these claims bears scrutiny. The textual evidence presented by Asquith and Milward is not persuasive, and has not convinced mainstream academics: David Womersley, Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, seemed to dismiss Asquith’s book out of hand when asked to review it. Edmond Malone changed his mind about John Shakespeare’s tract, declaring it to be a forgery. Davies’s testimony has been discredited. Examination of Shakespeare’s purchase of the Blackfriars gatehouse by Samuel Schoenbaum confirms that it was a sound fiscal investment (Schoenbaum sees no reason to ascribe any other motive).
When arguments for Shakespeare’s Catholicism surface – and they do regularly – they feel suspiciously like “special interest scholarship”, the result of a preordained conclusion in seek of verisimilitude. The Ricardians, who seek to exonerate Richard III from wrongdoing and to “rehabilitate his reputation”, are perhaps the best example of such writing.
It is perfectly understandable that Catholic scholars should seek to appropriate the Bard: after all, there is something larger at stake here than the religious affiliation of a single playwright. An understanding of Shakespeare’s work is not just the key to English literature; Shakespeare is one of the essential components of English identity. Claim him for your own and you are appropriating a part of Englishness for your cause.
Shakespeare was the product of a confusing time in which many people thought of themselves as Catholic but nonetheless obeyed the state: it’s hardly surprising that Catholic imagery, and some degree of nostalgia for lost Catholic treasures, would inform his work. Presumably he did harbour some sympathies, or he would not have written of the “bare ruined choirs” in Sonnet LXXIII. But while this is almost certainly a reference to the ruins left by Henry VIII, it is hardly a reason to suppose Shakespeare himself was “a Catholic”.
The problem of classifying Shakespeare’s religion, then, is complex, and probably irresolvable, which may be why some academics question whether he was a Christian at all.
The English Reformation provides the perfect conditions for special interest scholarship to flourish. There isn’t enough to go on from the 15th century, and there’s too much proper work from professional historians on the 17th. But in the 16th, plausible positions can be strung together on the basis of “probability” and “circumstance”, hinging on the seductive “what if?” – a question that that lies at the heart of a million junk history books. It goes without saying that, had Shakespeare been identified as a Catholic in his lifetime, he would not have been permitted to continue staging his plays. But our recent fascination with detective stories and “codebreaking” – the trend from which The Da Vinci Code sprang – should not be allowed to cook up a conspiracy either.
Those “lost years” in Rome – don’t they sound like a classic piece of wishful thinking? Much Shakespeare-as-Catholic writing suffers from the hallmarks of special interest scholarship (one gets the sense that conclusions were reached before a single library book was opened).
As James Fenton wrote in the Guardian: “For some reason, Shakespeare as Shakespeare is not interesting enough for the sort of taste that dabbles in this area. It has to be Shakespeare and the great pyramid of Ghizeh, Shakespeare and the knights templar, Shakespeare and the missing Lancashire years...” Fenton is right to be exasperated: it is only a matter of time before one of these risible interpretations hits the big time and captures the public imagination. But while Leonardo da Vinci may have been hijacked by fantasists and partisan amateurs, perhaps Shakespeare can be spared the same ignominy.
We may wish to claim Shakespeare for Rome, but we do so in the absence of fact and predicated on a daisy-chain of “whatifs”. Which is why we should approach the latest glut of books on this subject with a healthy scepticism.
Milo Yiannopoulos is a freelance technology writer currently reading English at Cambridge University